It is easy to miss the trail and find yourself suddenly scrambling up rocks that would daunt a mountain goat. Few inscriptions mark the path and only here and there are some in English. What had been yard-wide steps meandering through holes in the rock, climbing and dipping under boulders tentatively perched overhead, suddenly turned into a series of rock ladders, irregular and slippery ledges, and slab bridges a yard long and a foot wide.

So this, then, was China's Stone Forest, which had tempted us 1,500 miles from Bejing, out temporary home, to Yunnan Province, where China meets Laos, Vietnam and Burma. The Stone Forest is beginning to be recognized as one of China's foremost natural wonders. It is making Kunming, tje 2,200-year-old city of two million and Yunnan's capital, a magnet for visitors. It brings more tourists that the year-around spring weather, temples and lakes, which have made Kunming a resort city for most of its history.At the moment we were regretting our choice. The decision to travel to Kunming had been pretty much impulsive. Our target destination has been Tibet, which the Chinese had promised to reopen to individuals March 15. It remained sealed off to all but a few lucky tours. But Kunming was more than just obtainable. It was a charming city, a blend of old and new, representing many minority cultures and although still not a major tourist destination, easily accesible from Bejing by 10 China Airline (CAAC) flights a week.

We were finding the trail negotiable only by inching along a ledge using well-worn handholds carved in the rock. The drop, should my wife or I miss the footing, was "only" about 20 feet. Yet the pools and jagged rocks below had us wondering whether there was a Stone Forest equivalent of the Ski Patrol that would come to our rescue if somehow these aging feet and our street shoes weren't up to the pitch of duty.

Happily, boy and girl Chinese teenagers, almost dancing down the stairs in total confidence of their safety and disregard of the laws of gravity, took our hands and guided us back. It did my ego no good to see that the lad was wearing high-heeled shoes with taps.

The Stone Forest is a vast tract, covering more than 13,000 acres, of rock pillars, the tallest about 100 feet. It was formed by rain water dissolving and splitting thick limestone over eons and creating grotesque rock shapes, a "karst" formation. Geologists judge from marine fossils that 270 million years ago the area was under an ocean.

The heart of the forest, which is developed with trails, is a densely pillared area of about 50 acres. Most of the riskier spots on the main trail are lined with an iron railing newly painted orange, and hikers wise enough to get their bearings before turning into one of the blind alleys would have no difficulty.

After climbing more than a hundred steps to a pagoda platform called the Lion Pavillion that offered a panoramic view of the forest, we found two Chinese women seated there impassively. They had made the climb with ease, though they were so old that they had tiny feet that had bound in infanthood, a practice that had all but disappeared 60 years ago.

We had been to other Chinese karst formations, in caves at Guilin and near Beijing, where guides enthusiastically pointed out what were presumed to be fantastic shapes of animals and the like, often far too fancifully. The shapes named in the Stone Forest--and identifiable from a rudimentary map that is the only literature available at the gift shops--are more representational, most especially one called Elephant on a Rock Stand.

Others had intriguing and unmistakably Chinese names like Rhinoceros Looking at the Moon, Resting Swan Gazing Afar, and Old Man Taking a Stroll. Halfway along the walk hikers were resting at a delightful cool opening, admitting the largestof the preserve's pools, called Sword Peak Pond. Others were lunching at stone picnic tables which, not always the case in China, were kept immaculately clean.

But two of the most famous rocks, Mother and Son Going for a Walk and Stone Mushroom, lie outside the developed part of the forest, a considerable hike.

At first flance, the colors will disappoint visitors looking for something like the vivid oranges of Bryce Canyon. The overall impression is of slate gray, and it is only when the hiker is in the depth of the forest that it becomes apparent that there are delicate and subtle earth hues all around.

China is only beginning to cash in on the tourism potential of its great color and diversity and stunning sights. But now tours are being routed to the Stone Forest and the Stone Forest Hotel caters to these groups. As independent travelers, we couldn't get an evening meal there because only the set banquet for groups was being served--we made do with crackers and Chinese cola, though we did get a decent lunch. Breakfast was served only a half hour, from 7:30 A.M.

Shops outside the hotel are largely booths in which Sani women sell their woven goods: belts, hats, aprons and bags. The booths did not open till 11 A.M. because that is when the first of the tour buses arrived from Kunming, though women would happily accomodate anyone who wanted to illegally "change money"--convert their foreign exchange certificates, which are redeemable in dollars or other hard currencies, for the staple renminbi

The Sani people are among China's many minority cultures. A dozen young Sanis staged a show in the hotel at 8 P.M., an hour of dancing and nasal singing and strumming and banging, very foreign to ears not attuned to Chinese music.

We elected to stay overnight at the Forest, largely because the bus ride takes three and a half hours, though the distance from Kunming is only 75 miles. The long ride allows day visitors only about three hours in the forest itself, too little time for anything but a cursory exploration. It also bespeaks the condition of both the curvy washboard road and our ancient bus. Our morale was jolted when we read in the English-language China Daily that inter-city bus accidents had killed 173 persons so far this year, mostly in mountainous regions--Yunnan was mentioned specifically.

Our bus was crowded, with every place occupied down to the jumpseats. The road was at points harrowing as it hugged the edge of the gorges, and the last hour of travel was over dirt road being relocated almost entirely by hand labor. But the ride had its redeeming features. Landscapes shifted constantly past prosperous adobe villages, revealing a variety of agricultural pursuits from rice growing with water buffalo on ancient hill terraces to the planting of row crops in fields where men swung six-foot hoes overhead to till the red soil.

On arrival, we were dismayed to find that the bus terminal was about three miles from the forest entrance. Tour buses navigate the three miles, but our city bus did not. Advised to take a pony cart, we hiked up the road a quarter mile until we found one and negotiated a price. I let the driver beat me out of three yuan for two people, about 70 cents; the prevailing rate was about five jiao, or 13 cents. We felt that it would have been worth almost any price, for we found no other transportation.

Just outside the forest gate, hotel rooms can be had for 10 yuan, or about $3 a night, if the traveler is satisfied with the most basic sleeping arrangements and with using a disgusting communal lavatory. The Stone Forest Hotel charges us 50 yuan for a double. It is a large compound of about 10 buildings, mostly of two stories; a number were being renovated, and one, the dining hall, looked brand new. Our rooms were spartan and the shower dripped, as almost all do in all but the best Chinese hotels, but it was clean.

Until early 1988, Kunming offered only two good hotels, the best known of which is the old Kunming hotel. It is two buildings, one where a single rented for 75 yuan a night, the other where a room with a bath could be had for as little as 10. It is a languid hotel where we had to roust the desk clerk out of bed to check out at 7 A.M. and where the staff is rude and indifferent to the point of hostility.

Friends of ours had a better experience at the Green Lake Hotel, though it is on the city outskirts. After one night at the Kunming, we transferred to the new Golden Dragon Hotel, which had its official "soft opening" in March. It was still little patronized when we were there in April. One evening my wife and I were the only persons in the dining hall. But it is sure to gain popularity. At this spanking clean, superior class hotel, a room for two cost only 100 yuan, about $6 more than at the Kunming. Dinner for two was 26 yuan, or about $3 apiece, a huge breakfast, $2.50 each.

Visitors can profitably spend about two full days in Kunming, one visiting the old city, the other the lakes and temples outside town. The Golden Dragon is a good place to launch out from, since the hotel staff will quickly find cabs for day hire. A three-hour morning trip to Lake Dian, one of China's largest, and the western hills cost about $18. It included an uninspiring drive from the city center through an industrial district, but once into the western hills the road climbs about 2,000 feet to Dragon Gate, a group of grottos, corridors and pavillions hacked from the cliffs from 1781 to 1835 by a Taoist monk and his coworkers. It offers a commanding view of the lake and the junks on it. Nearby are two interesting Ming Dynasty Buddhist temples, including one the Bua Tin Temple, that has a charming courtyard with flowering trees, magnolias, camellias and azaleas.

Visitors also will want to spend an afternoon and evening off the main streets. Kunming is a city of broad avenues edged with high rises and sycamores, stretching out to the suburbs and pre-empting farm land. The older sections, however, must look very much as they must have nearly half a century ago, when Kunming was famed in the West as the home of the World War II Flying Tigers and as a terminus of the Burma Road. The older sections have the flavor of southeast Asia: narrow roads and shops open to the streets, many roads with large trees that bend over them. There is no longer, however, much to suggest that the city ever was a "medieval cesspool," as Theodore H. White called it just after World War II. They alleys are filled with charcoal smoke and the crowded outdoor restaurants where boiling pots float gobs of pork or chicken, that with rice pasta, comprises Kunming's most celebrated dish, "Across the Bridge Noodles."

White also asknowledged that Kunming's sky was bright and the sun so intoxicating that it evoked a "gay lightheadedness." We found today's Kunming one of China's cleaner, inviting cities. Kunming and its Stone Forest make this far-off corner of China one of the most intriguing China travel adventures. But mind those stone steps.

*Dr. Hollstein was a Fulbright professor at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing.